Private Suffering in Political Circumstances

(Patrick Blanchfield)

By Patrick Blanchfield

On Third Avenue a crowd gathers to watch a suicide attempt. People in business suits, nannies pushing strollers, shoppers with their bags, a few construction workers – they stop, mill about, crane their necks backward, trying to see. Twenty stories up a straight line of identical brick balconies, someone wants to jump. Police on the balcony above drop a weighted net down to more cops on the balcony two floors below, ensnaring the jumper’s balcony completely. From so far below, it is impossible to see what happens next; the would-be jumper is never quite visible.

The crowd starts to disperse. It’s rush hour. People have places to be, and quite a lot to process besides. Just hours ago, breaking news from the White House: Executive Orders calling for immigration crackdowns, sweeping bans on refugees, doubling-down on the construction of a Mexican border wall, more. “If I’m any more late to work,” says a middle-aged Latina woman, pulling herself away from the scene, “Tomorrow, that’s gonna be me.”

The circumstances of any given suicide can be inscrutable. A fatalist might say: as much as any other human action. But the lives of the mentally ill are not metaphors, neither for cheap philosophizing nor easy political commentary. And yet respecting people, mentally ill or otherwise, who take their own lives as real humans with real problems means also acknowledging that their pains can be more than just idiosyncratic. “All private suffering,” observed Victor Klemperer in his diary entry of October 30, 1936, writing of a friend feared likely to kill himself, “is multiplied and poisoned a thousand times over by the political circumstances.” Born Jewish but a convert to Protestantism, and married to an “Aryan” woman, Klemperer was a Professor of Romance Languages at the Technical University of Dresden and a meticulous diarist. His diary narrates life under an increasingly threatening and murderous regime, speculating on political developments, relating the everyday stories of other people, family friends. There are depressions, nervous breakdowns, suicides. Another close friend, a wry and brilliant man with a whimsical fondness for beetles, and a Jewish convert to Protestant like Klemperer, struggles for months and ultimately kills himself; a year later, a destitute Klemperer “envies [him] a hundred times a day” and writes of trying to clothe himself in one of the dead man’s old suits. Klemperer and his wife only narrowly escaped deportation to a concentration camp by fleeing amid the chaos of the firebombing of Dresden. More than once, as the world goes to hell around him, Klemperer contemplates taking his own life: “Where do people find the courage for suicide?”

How many people have killed themselves because of Donald Trump? Simply articulating the question reveals a kind of crass reduction: what “because of Donald Trump” might mean could be as singular as any given person’s reasons for their despair, the many pressures that Trump’s rise to power and what it represents may only crystallize or add to. But still, the question isn’t an idle one. It’s anecdotal, but therapists have reported that the election and subsequent developments have taken a toll on the well-being of many of their patients. “Trump may represent the general scary frightening figure, like the monster under the bed,” says one Oakland psychoanalyst. “Trump is coming to symbolize all their fears.” The strain is particularly acute for those already at risk and in distress: racial, religious, and sexual minorities, those with traumatic personal and family histories, others. “One could imagine people from families of immigrants who have come from countries where there’s been a genocide, whether it be the Jewish Holocaust or any number of traumatic experiences, are carrying the stories of the previous generations,” the analyst continues. “Something like a Trump presidency is bound to stir up echoes of the past.” Certainly, shortly after Trump’s win in November, one segment of his supporters, self-identified neo-Nazis, celebrated what they saw as new leverage for goading vulnerable Americans into taking their own lives: “You can troll these people and definitely get some of them to kill themselves.” Trump, for his part, has suggested he associates suicide with personal weakness.

The morning of the suicide attempt, the city feels on edge, brittle. Maybe it’s the headlines, maybe it’s the bizarrely balmy weather. Maybe the self-care and self-soothing mechanisms people are using to cope just aren’t quite working. I’ve been binging on TV like never before, and walking through the tension I find myself thinking of Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, waxing philosophical about the supposedly palpable misery of the show’s Louisiana setting: “Got a bad taste out there. Aluminum, ash, like you can smell the psychosphere.” For once, the idea of a sense of dread and enervation so omnipresent you can taste it somehow doesn’t feel overwritten. And even that TV series’ shabby payoff seems suggestive: a pressure-cooker buildup of Lovecraftian anxiety, tantalizing hints of monstrous conspiracies at the highest levels of political power, all of it collapsing and leaving the viewer with a cheap and ugly dénouement where the real bad guys are a pair of inbred white trash swamp mutants straight from central casting. The true monsters get away, the cosmic struggle is revealed to be a sleight of hand, and we’re left with caricatures and a vague sense of guilt and shame about the whole thing.      Drinking with friends later, thinking along these lines, I venture a tired, perhaps jaded question: even after the election, how many of us had been expecting our political struggles to involve facing something different? But what we wound up with was something, crueler, more grotesque, more blatant, and just tackier than we could’ve possibly imagined. There we were, gearing up to fight The Yellow King; now, here we are, facing This Orange Asshole.

But it’s no joke, no disappointing TV show. Trump may have always been a soft man, a poltroon, a ghoul, but now, he’s the one sitting where the buck stops for killings of actual people, with doubtless more to die soon. And when I dream, my nightmares about Trump aren’t in the genre of prestige-TV horror; instead, they’re dreams of Great Powers at war, of nations pitched at each other in mutually assured butchery. Suicide of a sort, but on a titanic scale, and to the sound of trumpets.

Washington Square Park, January 25, 2017 (Patrick Blanchfield)

Social space is not entirely dominated by dread. I attend three protests in two weeks. In Washington Square, demonstrators brought together by the Council of Islamic Relations (CAIR) protest the Executive Orders, holding lighters and glowing cellphones aloft in the gathering dusk: “No Ban, No Wall, New Yorkers for All.” Days later, a march, this time in Philadelphia, thousands stream down past City Hall: “We. Are. A. Sanctuary. City.” Some seventy-five people gather at a busy intersection in my small town in Chester County, Pennsylvania: “No Ban, No Fear, Refugees Are Welcome Here.” In all these places, the rhythmic chants, like so much of the protest signage, broadcasts counter-messages of acceptance and welcome, directed at refugees, immigrants, the marginalized. You are welcome here. Your life matters.

At the smallest rally, the one in suburban Pennsylvania, it seems like the town’s entire clergy is there, children and retirees and military veterans too. Hundreds of passing cars honk in support, drivers pump their fists in the air. Only a few passersby engage negatively, throwing up the odd middle finger, rolling down their windows to harangue “Get a job!” One man in a four-door sedan gets agitated: “Don’t you know they’re cutting off the heads of Christians, I’ve got to look after my babies.” A white-haired priest in sneakers calls back at him: “Well, then, God bless you and your family, you take good care of them.” A woman in a battered Prius stops at the light, and starts talking at the crowd through her open window. “You people, you’re un-der-in-formed,” she enunciates, disgusted, waving a cigarette over her steering wheel before driving off. “He only wants to keep out Syrians. Just the Syrians.” It turns out that there actually are two Syrian immigrants in the crowd, middle-aged women who live only a few miles apart but have never met before; they start talking, and discover they both went to the same high school in Aleppo.

Vik Muniz artwork from the Second Avenue Subway, New York City (Patrick Blanchfield)

These moments feel powerful. Affirmations of life, sudden patches of light breaking through the mounting darkness. “While we were marching,” says a young girl at one protest, clutching a homemade picture of multi-colored stick people smiling and holding hands, “I forgot Donald Trump existed.” But the glow of the rallies is evanescent. Walking back home alone, sign on my shoulder (“PA WELCOMES REFUGEES”), a van tears past, and a man yells “Trump!” out the window, as though that one word says everything it needs to, like a curse.

New York again. The art in one station of the new Second Avenue subway is a series of Vik Muniz mosaics portraits of everyday New Yorkers, real people. A woman in a sari, a Hasidic man, a gay couple, laughing children, more. Under other circumstances, a cynic might find the representation of the theme of diversity heavy-handed, particularly alongside a looming inscription of “E Pluribus Unum.” But somehow, on this morning, a day or two after the anonymous suicide attempt, and after the nighttime rally in the Park, it all feels almost painfully lovely. On the platform, an old man and a little girl sit on a bench watching a pair of buskers play a gentle bluegrass cover of The Grateful Dead’s ‘Friend of the Devil.’ MTA workers carrying clipboards walk around, talking to each other. Somewhere, someone laughs. It all seems decent and hopeful, like it’s holding together somehow, no matter how threatened, how fragile it may be.

On the train train, the doors close, and the music drowns out as we pull away. We’re halfway to the next station when the emergency brake is thrown and the entire train screeches to a halt, nearly sending passengers flying. “Man-on-the-tracks-man-on-the-tracks-man-on-the-tracks” crackles an urgent voice on the overhead. In the car, passengers exchange glances – Is it … ?

No, it’s just a worker, a man in a hard hat, doing repairs somewhere up the tunnel on the far side of the tracks. He waves the train forward.

We pick up speed and hurtle into the darkness.

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In the Godforsaken Wilderness is a blog being written by Patrick Blanchfield in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. You can read past posts here.

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Patrick Blanchfield is the Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.

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Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.

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